Though his career lasted less than a decade, the French Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat is considered one of the titans of modern art. Since his untimely death at the age of 31, his impressive, though limited body of work has influenced artists across a range of media. Seurat’s highly technical approach to painting – known as Pointillism – provided the basis for the Cubists, Divisionists and Futurists who followed him, while his brilliant dots of color heavily influenced the Fauvists. Today, his A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is considered among the greatest masterpieces of modern art.
Born in 1859 in Paris, Georges Seurat began studying drawing at an early age under the tutelage of the sculptor Justin Lequien. He entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1878 where he studied under Henri Lehmann, a student of Ingres. Stifled by the narrowness of his official studies, Seurat soon sought other avenues for research, visiting museums regularly and searching libraries for photographs and engravings to copy.
It was there that he discovered works that would change his entire life, including Charles Blanc’s 1867 treatise Grammaire des Arts du Dessin and David Pierre Giottino Humbert de Superville’s Essai sur les Signes Inconditionnels de l’Art (1827). The works dealt with aesthetics and the relationship between lines and images, spurring Seurat’s interest in the scientific basis of art.
By the time Seurat began his studies, the Impressionists had already made waves in the art world, dismantling traditional ideas of color, form and atmosphere. Rather than capturing what an object ought to be, the Impressionists relied on instinct and observation to paint the truth of an object, introducing the effects of ambient light and atmosphere in their works. Seurat, however, wanted to take the Impressionists’ innovative style a step further, in an effort to bring together art and science.
Seurat was not the only artist of his generation who sought to reinvigorate Impressionism. His contemporaries Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh were also attempting to push the boundaries of the Impressionist style – Lautrec with his voyeuristic approach and innovations in lithography, and van Gogh with his explosive color and psychological expressiveness. Yet, Seurat’s mathematical exactitude and technical precision was nearly the exact opposite of Lautrec and van Gogh’s rapidly composed scenes – he was breaking entirely new ground.
Seurat set to work on his first great masterpiece, Bathers, Asnières, in 1883; it was during this period that he also met the 100-year-old chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul, from whom he learned about complementary color theories. He also met Paul Signac, a young painter who would become his student and his close friend.
Though Seurat’s bold new technique was initially met with mixed reviews, he continued to pursue what he came to call “chromo-luminarism,” and what art history now refers to as Pointillism. Using dots of contrasting and complementary color, Seurat substituted an optical mixture of colors in lieu of mixing pigments on palette. When viewed from afar, his dots of red and blue became purple, and yellow and red became orange. The results, according to artist Camille Pissarro, were “…luminosities more intense than those created by mixing pigments.”
Shortly after completing Bathers, Asnières, Seurat began studies for a composition he had contemplated for some time. It was to be wholly representative of his new Pointillist technique - all of his scientific study fully realized in one massive work - and he made numerous drawings in preparation for the task. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Art Institute of Chicago) is today considered the artist’s greatest masterpiece, and it took Seurat over two years to complete. Painted on a massive scale, the work measures ten feet wide and contains about 40 different figures, all within a suburban park on an island in the Seine River.
The work was first exhibited at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in May 1886, and again in August 1886 at the second Salon of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. Though it was praised by his friends and contemporaries, Seurat merely remarked, “They see poetry in what I have done. No, I apply my method and that is all there is to it.”
Indeed, the monumental canvas reveals the methodology of his intricate technique. While working, he would concentrate on a single section of canvas, and would only apply paint after having already determined exactly where and how each dot would be applied. The result was a wholly cohesive optical mixture that perfectly articulated the natural harmony of the world through Seurat’s scientific eye.
Though the initial reception to his new style was lukewarm, Pointillism was later held up as a paradigm of avant-garde art. Seurat continued to paint in that style and showed his works at the Salon des Indépendants until his untimely death in 1891. Though he was only active for less than a decade, Seurat contributed more to the history of art than many artists achieve in a full lifespan. His oeuvre is small, but today his works remain among the great masterpieces of the modern era.